This is the third of the best Stephen Crane short stories, with "The Open Boat" and "The Blue Hotel" being the other two. The story starts in an interesting way as the older sheriff has gone to another town to marry a not so young and not so beautiful woman who he is obviously devoted to. They have a kind of grown up love not common in American fiction. They are on the train ride back to their new home, the Sheriff's house.
The Sheriff is concerned he didn't let the locals know. But he has a far bigger problem in front of him. Scratchy Wilson, an OK man when sober, but riled up and dangerous when drunk which he is when the Sheriff and his new bride arrive in town. Alcohol here, as in "The Blue Hotel", drives people to dangerous spots. The moment occurs when the Sheriff and the bride come upon Scratch who is pointing his gun at the Sheriff. In traditional westerns, and as in "The Blue Hotel", the scene is set for the Sheriff to die and the bride abandoned. Instead, the Sheriff points out he has no gun, Scratchy considers this through his alcoholic haze, and decides this isn't fair and walks away. Not what one expects. Yet, the danger, immediacy of death at any moment, and the fear remain after Scratchy walks away. A stunning reversal of expectation.
As with "The Blue Hotel", Scratch walking away has all the importance of a key moment in people's lives that Sherwood Anderson describes in Winesburg, Ohio and Edgar Lee Masters in Spoon River, all written within a few years of each other.
Public Domain (P)2010 Christina Brown